Living to pay bills

When Bahamians responded in outrage last week to comments by Yamacraw MP and Minister of Financial Services, Trade and Industry Elsworth Johnson on how Bahamas Power and Light (BPL) customers choose to spend their hard-earned money, their anger was not merely a function of discontent with the current administration.

Johnson’s commentary triggered fiery backlash because it ripped at the festering wounds and battle scars of Bahamians locked in the daily fight for a better life and a claim to what’s left of the economic pie in their country.

More and more Bahamians are soldiering with anxiety and depression because no matter how hard they work and regardless of their dreams and aspirations, they cannot get their head comfortably above water due to the high cost of living that leaves them living to pay bills.

They are watching as the divide between the haves and the have-nots appears to widen, with desired opportunities for themselves and their children painfully out of reach.

Life in the middle class is an homage to the Middle Passage — you are the precious cargo of the economy but financially, you might not survive the journey.

Bahamians struggle every day on jobs that don’t inspire or fulfill them and return home to children and spouses who have needs and wants they are either too broke, too tired or too emotionally defeated to meet.

When it isn’t one thing, it’s another and as soon as the money comes it goes.

Many try to control personal spending and increase savings, but their efforts are undermined by prices and utility costs that are out of their control.

They long for better, but don’t know how to attain it.

Some are losing their dignity, sacrificing their humanity and risking their health just to put food on the table and a sensible roof over their head.

They elect politicians who promise to facilitate a better life only to watch those politicians whose salary and perks they pay for become kings and queens on their money, and talk down to them because they spend their money on more than government incompetence and corruption.

Many ask themselves, “What is the point of this life?”

“Why do I have to struggle so hard every day?”

“When will it finally be my turn?”

Bahamian life in numbers

The level of income inequality in The Bahamas, which is the divide between the rich and everyone else, is the second highest in the region, according to the 2019 Latin American Economic Outlook Report.

Income inequality was highest on New Providence, according to the 2013 Department of Statistics Household Expenditure Survey released in 2016.

According to the 2017 Labour Force Survey, 31,535 households in The Bahamas had an annual income of $20,000 or less.

In 2013, one in every eight people in The Bahamas was living below the poverty line set at $4,247 per year or $354 per month, surviving on at least $3.82 per day.

The poverty rate was highest in the Family Islands but because most of the population lives on New Providence, most of the country’s poor lives there.

While the majority of the country’s poor were Bahamian, Haitian migrants were most likely to live in poverty, with the lowest incidences of poverty being among those from Canada, the United Kingdom and the United States.

Young people under the age of 20 made up the largest segment of those living in poverty, and between 2001 and 2013 the poverty rate jumped from 9.3 percent to 12.5 percent — meaning more and more people fell into poverty during that period.

Poverty was higher in homes headed by females than by males and in homes where the head of household had no more than a high school education.

The majority of people living in poverty were employed — most within the private sector.

Households with three or more members made up almost 90 percent of those living in poverty, with 74 percent of poor households having at least one child.

Nationally, almost half of a person’s expenditure went to housing, water, electricity, gas and other fuels, with 13.8 percent spent on transport and 11.9 percent spent on food and non-alcoholic beverages.

As expenditure increased, people spent less on clothing and footwear.

This was all before the introduction of value-added tax (VAT) at 7.5 percent in January 2015.

Fast forward to 2019 where the VAT rate is now at 12 percent and the cost of goods and services this year is at its highest on record, with the largest price increases seen on food, clothing and healthcare.

In short, it is more expensive to buy food, to clothe yourself and to provide for your health in The Bahamas than it ever has been.

BPL Board Chairman Donovan Moxey recently said the power company’s customers “don’t really like to pay their bills on time”.

What is more likely to be true is that the cost of electricity is so high it is forcing people to make decisions between keeping the lights on and eating, buying medication, getting medical tests or putting decent clothes on their backs and shoes on their feet.

It is why hundreds, if not thousands, are living without electricity — they’d rather live without power than without food.

When an essential service is so costly that it forces people to compromise on their health and safety it is more than a political issue — it is a human rights issue.

And instead of our elected officials demonstrating that they are effectively looking into that, they are instead looking into our closets and passports.

Why are you watching me?

During debate on the government’s Rate Reduction Bond Bill that will make way for a new tax on BPL bills, Johnson said of Bahamians who owe the power company: “When you look at their passports, they’re traveling. When you look at the clothes that they wear, they are some of the most expensive. When you look at the way we arrange our finances, it leaves a lot to be desired.”

What Johnson seemed to miss is that the cost of electricity is not supposed to be so high that you cannot do much else with your life because of it.

Over the years I have observed that many in the political class seem taken with watching what the average Bahamian has, wanting to know how he or she got it and bothered because the person did not need to come to one of them to get it.

Today’s politicians, who too often are monuments to insecurity, inferiority complexes and the near neurotic desire to abide atop the social food chain, seem preoccupied with fortifying an “us” and “them” hierarchy that creates two subcultures — those who are elected and their subjects who elected them.

I do not suggest this to be the case with Johnson, but his comments give rise to the discussion.

As to his reference to travel, so it is fine for him and his colleagues to travel, lodge and dine first class and five stars “for the people” with our money, but when we the people choose to travel with our money, it’s a problem?

The travel budget under this administration continues to grow.

Ministers’ travel per diems have increased, they now have gas allowances for their vehicle and the reality is that some of them have never lived so good on our money, that they now tell us we should manage better because we have their taxes to pay.

Johnson’s comment about our clothing was most offensive for several reasons.

There is nothing more basic to life apart from food and water than clothing, so when you decide to take your assault there you are tearing at one’s dignity and pride.

Unless Bahamians are walking around with “tags on everything”, there is no way for Johnson or anyone else to know how much one’s clothing costs, which in effect means that he and like-minded colleagues who “look at us” are making a judgment call on what they believe is too good or too much for a large segment of the population to have.

That is what angered many.

Johnson further did what amounts to “throwing lowness” when he mentioned that governments in the past have given moratoriums on the payment of light bills.

BPL is not a private company. It is government-run, financed with our tax dollars, and were it not for the stubborn reliance on fossil fuels and decades of mismanagement and corruption, the cost of electricity would not be so high that politicians would see the need to implement such moratoriums in the first place.

Many Bahamians will never become owners of anything in their country other than debt because after trying to eat and pay basic bills, they have next to nothing left for anything else.

Meanwhile those they elect become the ultimate insider traders by virtue of their new-found positions, cornering markets and securing investments that the average Bahamian will never be able to afford and will never be in-the-know to know about.

The government of which Johnson is a part did not fix BPL’s problems before proposing a rate increase, has overseen its own share of scandal and mismanagement at BPL and has yet to come to us with a plan to grow the economy so that more of us can have a real shot at rising up out of a miserable life.

But it instead has consistently met the cries of the population with cynicism, high-mindedness and detachment that speaks to a deeper problem than perceived weaknesses in public relations.

Tone deaf

There are times when politicians, due to the newness of their posts or a lack of guidance, make utterances that strike a negative tone with the population.

But in this administration a number of government ministers are playing a different kind of instrument that consistently strikes a sour note with the public, and that is the instrument of superiority and arrogance.

The attitude that some members of the administration demonstrate is that the Bahamian people ought to be grateful that men of their calibre have chosen to come down from loftier heights to serve them.

Their disposition is one of indifference and their aura is one of, “I don’t need to be doing this, you need me more than I need you.”

To the extent that this is the case, it is understandable why notwithstanding escalating public dissatisfaction and disappointment, the tone deafness of this administration seems incorrigible.

You cannot truly serve who you do not value and as such, you will not hear their cries or seek to understand the reasons for them no matter how loud those cries may be.

If you do not value the professionals in your ministry, you will not respect their input no matter how accurate their advice and assessments might be.

If you see yourself as having all the answers and the Cabinet room as being the highest grouping of intellectual capital in the nation, you will have closed yourself off from the possibility of progress or success.

A member of the administration who had no expectation of attribution recently opined that while its ministers are generally not bad people, they are routinely succumbing to “group think” that causes them to mouth sentiments which strike a bad chord with the public but are deemed pleasing to leadership.

Prime Minister Dr. Hubert Minnis meantime, in his contribution to debate on his government’s Rate Reduction Bond Bill, admonished Bahamians who are upset about the upcoming tax on power bills to “be realistic”.

Well here is what is real: growing numbers of honest, industrious Bahamians who only want the best for themselves and their families are drowning in expenses brought about by higher taxes and years of government waste.

What’s real is thousands of Bahamians and residents are now homeless and jobless because of Hurricane Dorian and their struggle may worsen when international NGOs end their work and foreign aid stops pouring in.

What’s real is many businesses are hanging by a thread as it is and if they buckle and close or lay off staff because of higher costs and a sluggish economy, many more people will join the number of those living without electricity in a modern Bahamas.

What’s real is the Bahamian dream has nowadays become hard to define, and many are surrendering their dreams in pursuit of unending struggle just to make it day to day.

What’s real is Bahamians are tired of living just to pay bills, and they are sick and tired of politicians who have the audacity to stand in their Parliament and suggest that living to pay bills is all they should be realistically focused on doing.

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